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Reactive Parenting – What It Is & How To Overcome

What is reactive parenting

Reactive parenting is parenting based on an intense emotional reaction to a child’s misbehavior. This parenting style usually leads to frequent punitive punishment and aggression in both the parent and the child.

A reactive parent reacts with anger, frustration, or fear. They can explode out of frustration hurting their children emotionally and damaging the parent-child relationship. 

Reactive parenting vs responsive parenting

Reactive and responsive parenting are two different approaches to handling children’s behavior. Reactive parenting is impulsive and driven by immediate emotions, reacting to a child’s behavior without considering the underlying needs or feelings, while responsive parenting involves understanding the child’s needs and responding thoughtfully and consistently.

Reactive parenting can lead to inconsistency and confusion for the child. It can exacerbate challenges and conflicts.

Responsive parenting, on the other hand, emphasizes empathy, patience, and communication, aiming to nurture and guide rather than control. It fosters a supportive and trusting relationship, promoting healthy emotional development and promoting secure attachment in children.

What causes reactive parenting

Researchers have found that three elements can affect a parent’s parenting style. They are

  1. Child’s characteristics
  2. Parent’s personality
  3. Parent’s psychological well-being

Together, these three factors strongly predict the type of parenting used.​1​

Families with emotionally reactive parents usually have temperamentally difficult children.​2​

Some reactive parents tend to have a dysfunctional attributional style. Often, they attribute the child’s misbehavior to malicious intent. This perspective difference can have a significant impact on how parents respond.​3​

For example, parents who believe their whiny children are spoiled will respond harsher than non-reactive parents who believe their whiny kids are just tired.

A parent who lacks self-regulation and believes their child misbehaves on purpose responds intensely with negative emotions to their child’s bad behavior.​4​

reactive mom is angry daughter breaks a vase

Effects of reactive parenting

Using a reactive approach to parenting can damage the parent-child relationship. It is also one of the most significant and consistent parenting factors associated with child abuse and psychopathology.

It does NOT mean that if you’re a reactive parent, then you must have abused your child. It means if you have an intense emotional response to child’s behavior, pay attention to the interactions. Then, take steps to prevent them from worsening​5​.

However, when parental reactive negativity is left unaddressed, it may result in maladjustment of children. Over-reactive parenting dysregulates children’s behavior​6​ and reinforces their oppositional behavior​7​.

Parents’ reactive behavior serves as a negative example of how to control emotions. As a result, an emotionally reactive mother or father tends to have reactive kids.

How to stop being a reactive parent

Do not lose faith in your parenting ability. Parents are empowered to make changes and avoid parenting reactively.

Here are some practical strategies to help you stop hostile, over-reactive parenting and become a less reactive parent.

Spend time on self-care

You probably have heard this a million times – put on your oxygen mask before helping your child. It is one of the best things you can do for your family. It is important to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of the people you love most​8​.

Parenting is hard. The stress and pressure can take a toll on you.

Some people think that self-care is just about pampering themselves but it’s not. 

Self-care is about taking good care of yourself so you don’t burn out and you can be the best support for your family. 

You don’t have to take on a long-term goal like “be healthy” which can be daunting. Start with small steps. Listen to one song, read one chapter in your favorite book, or take a short walk to the mailbox. No matter how busy you are, set aside time to do something that helps you relax. Make it a part of your parenting routine.

By focusing on self-care, you improve your mental health, which also impacts your ability to self-regulate and how you handle a negative situation​9,10​.

Shift your attributional mindset

It can be upsetting for anyone if they assume a child’s negative behavior is ill-intentioned, but it can be especially difficult for over-reactive parents.

Shift your mindset and think positively about your child. This will also prevent your stress response system from going into a fight-or-flight mode​11​.

Be mindful of your negative ingrained reactions. By thinking positively about your child, you will also act more compassionately, teaching your child to have empathy for others. Identify your triggers and their relationship to childhood

Stress causes people to do things they are familiar with. Stressed parents may parent in the same way they were raised.

Reactive parents are likely to have reactive parents of their own​12​.

See if you can identify the triggers of your explosive parenting when your child misbehaves by examining yourself and your childhood. Having this insight will help you avoid being controlled by triggers and recognize them when they appear.

Attune to de-escalate

Emotional attunement is one of the fastest and most effective ways to de-escalate a conflict​13​.

All of us want to be loved and heard. Children are no different.

When you are emotionally attuned, your child will feel that you understand them. Your child will feel accepted. Being attuned doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. Rather, it means you get them.

Do this by being attentive and aware of their feelings. Be expressive. Tell them you have listened and paid attention to them by using words, facial expressions, and body language to reflect what you see in them.

For example, if they are upset, you can frown and stress, “You are very upset.”

All your child needs sometimes is a hug and the assurance that you understand and everything will be fine. 

Attunement is also a powerful way to connect with your child​14​. By building a strong relationship, you are more likely to avoid fights and conflicts.

Pick your battles

Take a step back and re-evaluate what you are fighting about in your daily lives. Sometimes we get so hung up on our rules that we forget what’s truly important in life.

Does it make sense to cause an emotional stir and take a toll on your mental health to get them to take out the garbage or leave their dirty shoes outside?

Asking them twenty times before they do it can be exhausting. But what will matter more in twenty years – garbage cleared or a good relationship with your child?

Be consistent

Inconsistency in parenting is a common trap that can lead to reactive anger and resentment. Things will be chaotic if you do not set clear rules and enforce them consistently.

Avoid empty threats. Name a consequence you are prepared to enforce, then follow through on it.

Final thoughts on reactive parenting

Non-reactive parenting requires practice and patience. Follow the steps and allow yourself to make mistakes from time to time. The key is not to let this become your autopilot reaction.


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    Bugental DB, Shennum WA, Shaver P. “Difficult” Children as Elicitors and Targets of Adult Communication Patterns: An Attributional-Behavioral Transactional Analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1984:1. doi:10.2307/1165910
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    Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M, Apostolopoulos V. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. Published online December 2017:48-56. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.09.003
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    Haft WL, Slade A. Affect attunement and maternal attachment: A pilot study. Infant Mental Health Journal. 1989;10(3):157-172.


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